Examining Hollywood’s ‘star obsession’

La La Land co-stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone at the Oscars.


In the midst of discussions about what you might call the ‘social’ problems in Hollywood, discussion of its artistic and cinematic failures can be drowned out. Here, then, it is worth attempting a considered look at Hollywood’s obsession with stars – this is something that seems so obvious, so natural, that it’s not worth thinking about. However, there are some worthwhile points to be made that might change the way you think about cinema.

Celebrity actors are a crucial part of what makes Hollywood what it is. Certain famous individuals regarded as talented actors gain a great deal of attention from the press wherever they go and receive star billing whenever they are cast in a film. This is obvious. There’s no need to talk about the unambiguous industry benefits that come from such a culture – if a film has, for example, Leonardo DiCaprio as the lead, it is guaranteed to make a lot more money than if, by comparison, your neighbour was the star. That’s a slightly facetious way of explaining it but the point stands. Big names make more money, and they can also bring attention to the work of lesser-known directors. Tom Hardy starred in Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2008 film Bronson; not only did this grant the film a wider audience and more attention (and thus greater income) but it gave Refn a bigger name too and allowed him to go on and make films like Drive, which, despite being somewhat far from mainstream film tastes, had a very respectable run in theatres, a high-calibre, star-studded cast, and made 5 times its budget. Had Tom Hardy not starred in Bronson, then Drive would likely never have come about, and none of us would know who Nicolas Winding Refn was. Nor would a more ‘artsy’ film like Drive have become relatively mainstream, and contributed potentially to a small change in film culture. A simpler example is La La Land. Whatever the cinematic merit of that film, it would not have become such a hit without the two leads, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, who are two of the most popular, successful actors in the Anglosphere right now. As a result of La La Land’s success it is even possible that audience expectations of mainstream films will have been raised. This is the good side of Hollywood’s star-obsession.

However, there is some less-obvious, but nonetheless important, disadvantages. Let’s take our man Ryan Gosling, for example, who is at now at the peak of his career, and look at some of the films he’s been in over the past half-decade or so: Blade Runner 2049, La La Land, The Nice Guys, The Big Short, Only God Forgives, The Place Beyond the Pines, Crazy Stupid Love, and Drive. Across these roles he’s played, among other things, an android in cyberpunk Los Angeles, a failing pianist who sings in public, an unscrupulous banker, a mentally disturbed criminal with an Oedipus complex, and a standard rom-com hunk. Once we’ve seen Ryan Gosling play these roles, which are admittedly different, he becomes a known face to us, and for an audience member who sits and watches the new Blade Runner, there is something of a cinematic dissonance, a psychological discomfort, when we see this familiar face, who only a few months ago was tap-dancing in modern day America, going about in a flying police car and fighting robots. It doesn’t make sense. And worst of all, it removes you from the cinematic experience. The suspension of belief, the engagement with onscreen drama and tragedy, or even comedy, is completely reduced when we are taken out of the experience by the presence of something that causes this kind of dissonance. It’s like seeing one of your parents in the next Star Wars. An even more startling example would be George Clooney or Sandra Bullock, co-stars of the much praised Gravity. It makes no sense to see two people we are used to seeing as regular citizens of America in the guise of astronauts. It confuses the viewer, and detracts from the film.

Alternatively, the opposite can happen, such that roles define real people. The most prominent example being Daniel Radcliffe who through no fault of his own has simply become Harry Potter in the minds of cinema-goers. The same could be said of Mark Hamill, who is by definition Luke Skywalker. This has extreme negative consequences for the individuals involved, (Emma Watson is anomalous in her relative post-Hogwarts success, compared with her less-fortunate counterparts) even to the extent that any prospect of a mainstream career can be ruined. It’s calling typecasting. Two points here: first of all, it generally makes the films much better as, for example, when we watch The Chamber of Secrets or The Half-Blood Prince, we are watching Harry Potter on screen, and not Daniel Radcliffe, and secondly, typecasting can actually have positive influences on an actor’s career if they become known for a particular kind of role rather than as a specific character.

Jason Statham plays the same man in every film, his roles are virtually interchangeable and the names don’t matter- he is generally a tough-talking, brutal, rough, vaguely suave, unsmiling English killer-agent-womaniser. Although this is good for Jason Statham personally, it correlates to what’s been covered earlier in the sense that, if you watch Parker, Transporter, or even RED, you’re basically watching the real British man Jason Statham act in front of a camera under various unmemorable pseudonyms. On the other side of the spectrum we have mainstream, star actors like Tom Hardy and Christian Bale, who play a variety of different roles but take each one as a separate entity and are more often than not unrecognisable in their various parts. The difference between Tom Hardy’s acting, voice, and appearance in, for example, The Dark Knight Rises (where he played masked villain Bane) and Legend (in which he played both of the Kray twins) is remarkable, and means that, for the audience, we aren’t just watching Tom Hardy walk around in a suit in 1960s London pretending to be a gangster.

Even something as small as the accent can have a profound impact. Ryan Gosling, by comparison, talks with roughly the same American-Canadian accent in every film (not to mention that his haircut is always the same, just occasionally dyed black or brown), while Tom Hardy’s various accents in Mad Max: Fury Road (grumbling, Australian-British), The Dark Knight Rises (that unique Bane voice), Legend (classic East End), and Lawless (in reduced terms – a cowboy) are worlds apart, not to mention the array of outfits and physical appearances he has inhabited.

Drawing this discussion to a close, it is clear that Hollywood’s obsession with stars is neither entirely good or entirely bad – there doesn’t have to be a moral verdict handed down on these matters. Sometimes a nuanced look at a particular issue is more important than deciding what’s correct; it can change the way we think about films and what we want from them or expect from Hollywood as an industry.

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